Washington Watch: Tough slog for part-time students

What difference does a year, two or three make in how many students, even first-timers attending full-time, take to complete a credential? The latest National Student Clearinghouse report on yearly success and progress rates has the answer: a lot. Attendance intensity also makes a big difference.

The official graduation rate captured in the U.S. Education Department’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) — which is for first-time, full-time students — is higher for four-year public institutions than for community colleges. There are many well-understood and documented reasons for the discrepancy, including those that are institutionally as well as student-based.

One factor is that four-year public colleges and universities often have highly selective admissions policies, including at flagship institutions. Four-year institutions also enroll more traditional students than community colleges. One of the characteristics of traditional students is they attend full-time. Others are that they are recent high school graduates, financially dependent on parent(s), likely better prepared for college than older students and less likely to work full-time.

Open admissions institutions like community colleges enroll far more nontraditional students. They are more likely to attend college part-time. They are also older, more likely to be independent and have dependents of their own, more likely to have taken some time off between high school and college and work full-time. Unfortunately, the very factors that define nontraditional students are associated with being at risk of not completing.

The part-time drag

Attending full-time, rather than part-time, makes a huge difference in students’ progress  through higher education and whether or not they graduate, at least within six-years of starting. Overall, within six years, students at degree-granting institutions who attend full-time are twice as likely as their part-time counterparts to graduate either from their starting institution or one they transferred to (63.6 percent  compared to 31.8 percent, respectively).

What is probably less known is the similar graduation rates of part-time students at two- and four-year public institutions. At each year, a similar percent of part-time students graduate from their starting two- or four-year public institution or one to which they transferred. At year four, there is less than a two percent difference and at year six, there is only a 5 percent difference between part-time students who first attended a four-year public institution compared to those who started at a two-year public institution. The four-year and six-year differences in graduation rates for the full-time cohorts is 11 percent and 28 percent, respectively, for students who started at four-year versus a two-year public institution.

The six-year pattern for continual enrollment, either at the same or another institution, of part-time students at two-year and four-year public institutions is also similar. However, in the second and sixth years, a higher percent of part-time students at two-year public institutions (12 percent and 15 percent difference, respectively, compared to less than 5 percent in the intervening years) than their counterparts in four-year institutions are still enrolled.

Improving student success of part-time students is challenging across higher education. It is not coincidental that many of the successful policies and practices to increase student outcomes involve increasing the percent of students who attend full-time, and in some cases, requiring full-time attendance, such as the City of New York University’s well known Accelerated Study in Associate Program (ASAP).

However, given the demographics and life circumstances for many community college students, attending full time is not possible. An overwhelming percent of community college students attend part-time (63 percent compared to 37 percent full-time). This fact, together with the lack of sufficient resources for student support, makes improving student outcomes especially challenging for community colleges.

About the Author

Jolanta Juszkiewicz
is director of policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.